A Local Approach to Enabling Entrepreneurs, Despite Visa Limitations


With little movement on meaningful immigration reform from the federal government, entrepreneurs in Massachusetts and now Colorado are pursuing a local approach to enabling foreign-born startup founders to launch and grow their businesses in the U.S.

Under the current immigration system, international students graduating from U.S. universities have a short runway to secure jobs from companies that will sponsor their visas in order to remain here to work. Even for those students talented enough to land great jobs at U.S. companies, the H-1B visas commonly reserved for tech workers are in extremely limited supply. And for those graduates, or even current H-1B visa holders, looking to launch their own ventures, acquiring and retaining the appropriate visa is nearly impossible. (Though it should be noted the President’s executive actions are attempting to make this process slightly easier.)

Last year, Jeff Bussgang from Flybridge Capital Partners worked with former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to imagine and establish a new way for non-citizen students to jumpstart the H-1B visa application process so they can start businesses in the U.S.

The Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program partners with universities to select a group of “entrepreneurs in residence”, similar to the temporary entrepreneur mentors at many businesses and venture capital firms. Instead, however, these entrepreneurs are employees of a university that sponsors their visas.  As academic institutions, universities are not subject to the same H-1B visa caps as traditional employers. The entrepreneurs are expected to dedicate several hours a week to being a resource and mentor at the university while the rest of their time can be devoted to their startup. It’s a creative, thoughtful solution to an extremely outdated immigration system holding back too many promising entrepreneurs in this country.

The University of Massachusetts Boston and University of Massachusetts Lowell piloted the program last year. As a result, Harvard Business School graduate Vivek Gupta was able to keep his financial services technology startup, Wealthvine, in the U.S, and his fellow alumnus Bryan O’Connell was able to build his healthtech company here too. Massachusetts’s current governor, Charlie Baker, recently allocated $100,000 in funding to continue the program this year.

The initiative has also now expanded to other parts of the country. Brad Feld of the Foundry Group and the University of Colorado Boulder are together funding at least four experienced and emerging entrepreneurs through the program this fall. The selected entrepreneurs will be expected to work for up to 20 hours a week on campus.

The program benefits both entrepreneurs and the university. “The EIR program will bring outside talent to campus to mentor students engaged in a range of projects requiring an entrepreneurial mindset,” explained Phil Weiser, dean of the University of Colorado Law School and executive director and founder of Silicon Flatirons—the university’s law, technology and entrepreneurship center.

“While I’m not giving up on a federal solution, I plan to put my money and my energy into a state level solution,” Brad remarked in a blog post, touching on what’s so refreshing and inspiring about this initiative: it’s a local, collaborative solution to what’s become a massive challenge to overcome at the federal level.

Only Congress has the power to solve the issue at scale by revisiting our outdated visa system and establishing a true entrepreneur’s visa like those in Chile, Canada and the UK. In the meantime however, communities and universities with an interest in retaining the bright students already in their schools or attracting and supporting new global talent now have an alternative approach at their disposal. The Global Entrepreneur in Residence Coalition serves as a sort of open-source toolkit for other cities, states and universities to explore launching similar programs.

“Our hope is that by publishing the program's playbook, we can encourage other states to implement the program as well,” wrote Jeff on his blog.  Any state looking to support entrepreneurship would do well to follow the lead of Massachusetts and Colorado.